On the thirty-six sattapadā

In MN 137 we have a difficult translation problem. There a term that is unique in this sense, sattapada. Elsewhere we have what is presumably a homonym meaning “seven steps”. But both elements satta and pada are highly variable in meaning. Despite the wealth of semantic possibility, stretched still further by the rather baroque array of translations of the term in other languages, it is hard to find a meaning that seems very fitting.

The commentary takes satta in the sense of “sentient beings”, and pada apparently in the sense of “path” (vaṭṭavivaṭṭanissitānaṃ sattānaṃ padā). Various translators of the Pali have:

  • Chalmers: tracks for creatures
  • Horner: modes for creatures
  • Thanissaro: states to which beings are attached (reading satta as = śakta)
  • Uppalavanna: seven steps
  • Bodhi and Analayo: positions of beings

We can dismiss Thanissaro’s reading, as the text clearly speaks both of attachment and letting go, so this reading, obscure in any case, is implausible. Uppalavanna’s choice of seven steps is tempting, as the phrase could easily refer to seven statments or steps in the teaching. However, the text itself contains no such group of seven. This leaves the remainder, all of which more or less agree with the commentary.

But this reading too is not persuasive. The text speaks of different kinds of feelings and one’s attachment to or letting go of them. There is no mention of sentient beings. So sure, it’s vague enough that it doesn’t definitively contradict the text, but neither does it fit very well.

The difficulty was evidently felt in ancient times, for we find an unusually diverse range of readings outside the Pali. These are described in Analayo’s Comparative Study of the Majjhima Nikaya, vol. 2 p. 783 note 132, on which I rely for the following. Unfortunately I cannot paste the whole note in, as the text is not Unicode and generates gibberish. I will spare you the many detailed references and just give the gist.

  • Some Chinese texts have a reading “knives”, which Analayo suggests may be a mistake for something like the Pali sattha (or else a copyists mistake in Chinese).
  • Some texts have something like the Pali satthar, i.e. “teacher”.
  • One text evidently represents śāntapadāni.

Now, none of this inspires great confidence, and the most likely situation is that at an early date, the use of a common word with a variety of meanings and near-homonyms led to confusion throughout the tradition. Nevertheless, have a look at three of the possible Sanskritic terms here:

  • śastra = knife
  • śāstṛ = teacher
  • śānta = peace

Notice anything? Of the three Sanskrit sibilants, they all begin with the same one, ś. Maybe this is just a coincidence. But there’s another Sanskrit word that begins with ś, namely śāta. This is cognate with the Pali sāta, which means “pleasure”. In Sanskrit, however, the sense “pleasure” is less important, and it has a stronger sense of “sharp”. It doesn’t take much to see this in the first of our Chinese examples, “knife”.

Sāta fits much better with our context, as the whole passage is literally about what gives rise to feelings. The problem is, of course, that sāta refers only to pleasant feelings, whereas the text discusses neutral and painful feelings too. Perhaps, after all, this is on the wrong track. Or perhaps it has a more oblique sense here: “states beginning with pleasure”, or “bases for pleasure, etc.”

I don’t know much about the process of dialectical transformation in ancient Indic, but I wonder whether it might have begun with sāta + a secondary suffix, perhaps a possessive -iya, so sātiya in the sense of “pertaining to pleasure”. Then it contracts to sātya. The consonants are simplified to sātta. Then the long ā is shortened as usual in Pali before a doubled consonant: satta.


I wondered if it could mean a contentment with or ‘happy with’ certain feelings. Some people are attached to depressive feeling for example and it becomes a comforting but unpleasant state. Even pain maybe perceived as pleasurable at some level- extreme sports for example. Self flaggellation in other religions and even self harm may give a certain amount of satisfaction. The point of the sutta here is showing what the different feelings are and how to be detached from them, be it pleasant or unpleasant. I agree with your rendering on this.

With metta

Ps - could satta have the same root as Sadda or even satisfaction?

Yes, i did consider this, but i couldn’t find any usage of sāta that would support it. It’s always used in the sense of “pleasure”. Having said which, some of its derivations are used in more neutral senses.

Not sadda = śabda. But it would seem that sāta and satisfy are from the same root:


[quote=“sujato, post:1, topic:5271”]
Thanissaro: states to which beings are attached (reading satta as = śakta)

We can dismiss Thanissaro’s reading, as the text clearly speaks both of attachment and letting go, so this reading, obscure in any case, is implausible.[/quote]

I am sorry if I sound intrusive (since I have no knowledge of Pali) but are we sure Thanissaro can be dismissed so easily because the thirty-six states sound like attachment to me, even though eighteen of those thirty-six states are wholesome?

For example, I generally assume ‘nekkham­ma’ (renunciation in MN 137) to be of a lesser degree of ‘letting go’ than vossagga (in SN 48.10 & MN 118 as quality of concentration & factors of enlightenment), which is lesser than paṭi­nissag­gā (16th stage of MN 118).

MN 137 proceeds to discuss surmounting those respective unwholesome & wholesome states, namely, surmounting wholesome grief with wholesome joy; surmounting wholesome joy with wholesome equanimity and finally surmounting equanimity & oneness (ekattā) with ‘atammayata’, which Bodhi translates as ‘non-identification’ and Thanissaro translates as ‘non-fashioning’.

If ‘satta’ refers to ‘attachment’, it may be possible the more subtle forms of attachment have not been eradicated until ‘atammayata’.

Regards :seedling:

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No, not really, nekkhamma is basically the opposite of attachment. It’s just too forced a reading. And remember, satta in this sense is rare in the suttas.

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OK. Thanks. I look forward to your explorations, here. :seedling:


Satiate also seems to come from the same latin root.

In AN 8.63, the 3 ways of samadhi,
bodhi uses “comfort” for sāta, thanissaro uses “enjoyment”.
What’s interesting about "sāta’ is it takes the place of “sukha” if you try to map it to 4 jhānas. Knowing the etymology, it seems almost criminal not to go with “satisfaction” or “satiation”. Thoughts?

(Ven. T’s trans)

tato tvaṃ,bhikkhu, imaṃ samādhiṃ savitakkampi savicāraṃ bhāveyyāsi,
you should develop this concentration with directed thought & evaluation,
avitakkampi vicāramattaṃ bhāveyyāsi,
you should develop it with no directed thought & a modicum of evaluation,
avitakkampi avicāraṃ bhāveyyāsi,
you should develop it with no directed thought & no evaluation,
sappītikampi bhāveyyāsi,
you should develop it accompanied by rapture…
nippītikampi bhāveyyāsi,
not accompanied by rapture…
sāta­saha­gatampi bhāveyyāsi,
** endowed with a sense of enjoyment;**
upekkhā­saha­gatampi bhāveyyāsi.
you should develop it endowed with equanimity.

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And not to sacca (cf. paṭicca and pratītya, nicca and nitya, whatcha and what you, avijja and avidya, etc.)? Sounds rather implausible, unfortunately.

Besides, Pali is not so keen on deleting vowel in suffixes to produce consonant clusters (cf. cāturiya, ukkhepaniya, etc). On the contrary, whener the sequence Cy cannot be resolved in a geminate affricate, Pali inserts a prothetic i (arya > ariya). A Cy sequence is a more or less sure sign of a Sanskriticsm.

Yes, that would be a more plausible resolution.

I’m think that it didn’t happen in Pali. Given how widespread the problem is, I assume it was in Magadhan or whatever earlier dialect(s) the passages was in. But like I said, I know very little about such matters, so I could be completely off track.

That indeed seems to be the case in what regards that particula etymology :older_man::cry: As for the rest of possible interpretations, I think you are far more competetent than me to pass judgments there: all of your thoughts up until śāta sound very reasonable :pray:

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Very diplomatically put!